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Opinion

Remembering Dale Bumpers – From a Senate Gone By

When I learned of former Arkansas Gov. and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers’ passing my heart grew heavy and my eyes filled with tears. My twin 8-year-old sons gave me hugs and wanted to know who he was and why I was sad. I did not have the honor of working for Dale when he served in the Senate, although my brief career as a Senate staffer did overlap with his tenure.

But I did become acquainted with Dale after his Senate retirement when he commenced his third career as a consultant and lobbyist. For the three and a half years I had the pleasure of working with and for him, I learned a great deal about “how things used to be” and how the lessons from the past were important for policymaking in the future. I helped him manage a significant book of business, including many Arkansan clients and, back in the good old days, guiding many of them through the annual earmark process, of which Dale was a master. He regaled me with colorful stories of his time in the Senate, running for office, mentoring Bill Clinton, and he also shared with me his concerns about the future of the Senate, the Congress and the nation.

Dale was a man of deep integrity, an amazing work ethic, and a terrific sense of humor. Unlike other retired Congressmen of his generation, he showed up every day ready to work a full day and earn his keep. He was incredibly down to earth and humble. Although many of his retired peers insisted on having a car and driver provided by their firms, he took the Metro to work and could be spotted on the Red Line during morning and evening rush hour. The title of his autobiography, “The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town” tells you everything about Dale: self-deprecating, witty and self-aware. He never forgot where he had come from and took great pride in what was most important in his life – his wife, children and grandchildren. He considered public service a calling and a duty. He was one of the Greatest Generation – he served his family, his community, his state, and his nation.

Along with being a wonderful teacher of Congressional culture and national politics, he was also a terrific mentor about life. During the time I worked for Dale, I was single and logged too many hours at the office and had a tendency to work at home into the wee hours of the morning. In his kind and mentoring manner, he encouraged me to have more balance in my life and often spoke to me about his family, highlighting that while one’s career and work are significant, family is what really matters. Finding meaning in one’s work was important but finding meaning in one’s life was paramount. So, when I married in 2006, it was a special joy and honor for my husband and I to have Dale in attendance to celebrate our union. He gave me that special Dale smile and wink that said, “You got it right, darling.”

A natural at business development, Dale was charming, entrepreneurial, trustworthy, and reliable. Clients were drawn to him and Congressional doors were held open for him. Not one to tell others what to do while staying in the comfort of his office, he engaged in shoe-leather lobbying – escorting clients up to the Hill, accompanying them on their meetings, and helping with preparation and follow-up. Dale did not merely show up for the meeting but did his homework and made sure those of us working with him did the same. Incredibly gracious and supportive, he was quick to give credit where it was due and readily acknowledged the talents and contributions of others. It was easy to see how he quickly rose to popularity in the small town of Charleston, Ark. in which he first practiced law, as governor, and in the U.S. Senate.

Dale often reflected on the state of the Senate – as “this is not my Senate.” He was concerned about the growing partisanship, the inability of many members to look past “their own re-election” and focus on finding where there was agreement, as opposed to always highlighting differences. As commercial air travel “to get back home” became cheaper and faster, he bemoaned that members spent less time together in D.C. As a result, they did not know each other as well and their families were not acquainted. Dale believed in the tried and true way of developing a strong working relationship: spending time together. He worried that with the focus on “dialing for dollars” members had less and less time to get to know, like, trust and want to “deal” with each other.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Dale had a terrific turn of the phrase, many that were very Arkansan, and therefore unfamiliar to me, as a relocated Californian. One of my favorites was, “He was madder than a pig caught under a gate.” He had a southern charm that was old school, lovely in a way that being called “darling” in the workplace elicited a smile and a feeling of warmth, not the feeling of harassment.

Dale was of a generation of policymakers gone by; an era where there were partisan disagreements but not widespread “partisanship just for partisanship sake.” He told me that they would “duke it out on the floor and then shake hands and break bread together.” In one conversation in which I asked Dale if he missed his old day job, he said that he had retired at the right time because the Senate he missed “didn’t exist anymore.” I not only miss that Senate, too, but I will miss Dale Bumpers – the U.S. Senate and the nation are better because of him.